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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City » District 1
January 23rd 2019
Published: January 23rd 2019
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thiws blog is about Saigon and me.

first this is me:

The only summary I could find was this, written in 2013. It's true to date, save for a few additions:

1.I moved from Canbera to my native Malaysia in 2013.

2. I then moved to Saigon on Jan 5, 2019 (more in the coming blog entries)



I was interviewed by the Canberra Times more than 2 years ago. The story read “Doctor makes dough to pay medical fees”, or something to that effect. A month or so before that, I had just walked out of the university, where I had been since the summer of 2001.

I sent in my (immediate) resignation letter at 5.45am to the John Curtin School, then started working with John and Rosemary. The warm and friendly couple run a grocery store at the ANU. I had known them since 2004, when I was still a student. Very nice people, they understood my “plight”. Rosemary, once a nurse, still cannot understand why it has been so difficult for me to get to work as a doctor here. John completely detests the system; “It's all aboutthe money” and simply shakes his head.





My story (if one could call it a story) begins way back in 1968. I was born to two high school teachers who'd never been to university. My mum, who taught me how to read (yes, in English) instilled in me nobel values: truth, hard work and kindness. Hell, even now (she is 73) I still have problems hearing what she says. She is just so soft-spoken. So was I, till I came to Australia. More about that later...





My late father was a strict disciplinarian. Discipline masters at high schools genereally are. The first time I dropped the “f” bomb, I was fighting with my brothers (as brothers at the age of 10 do). So I yelled out “XXXX you!!!”. Mum was nearby. “What did you say?”, she asked. I looked up proudly at her and said “XXXX you”! I had no clue what the word meant, but had heard that it was handy to use when fighting. “Wait till your dad gets back”. She left it at that and I fet triumphaint. Finally. I'd leaned a new word, so so I thought. Dad had gone, once again, to umpire hockey, badminton or some other game. Dad was a sportsman through and through.

At 5.30pm, Dad walks in. Mum, who was in the kitchen, yells out “Cha, come here”. She adressed my dad as “cha”, which is short for Pancha, which in turn, is abbrevaited from Panchanathan. “Ask you great son what he said”. Dad looked at me. I looked back and blurted out “XXXX you!!!”. Bang! My cheeks stung so hard and I fell to the floor. Tears welled in my eyes . As I ran upstairs he said “Don't use words unless you know what they mean of them”. Pretty succint, I thought, years later. And that was that for that moment, at least.

Ever the scholar, I creep into the small library at home. Gingerly, I reach for the Oxford English Dictionary. The look on my face afterwards could win medals at Cannes.



Two years later, I won the state (albeit a small one, quite a bit like the ACT) Under-12 (doubles) badminton championship. We were driving home, 20 mins away from the badminton hall. “So, you are a champion now. You must be so proud of yourself, son”. “Oh no, something's coming up” I think to myself. What had I done wrong now? Dad never called me son unless something was really, really wrong. “If I were you I would give up all games and just concentrate on your studies” (as I type this tears are in free-flow down my cheeks). I had come first in class for the entire duration of my primary school. I (thought) I had no reason to worry. As usual, I was wrong.



The following year, I stopped all sport. In 1994, I graduated from medical school. As I received my scroll from whoever it is that gives out scrolls, I look for my parents in the audience. There, in the midst of the crowd, I spot my Dad. Dressed in his only coat, he is the only one standing, taking a photograph of me. I never did get a chance to see that photograph





My first posting was as a medical officer in Penang. Starting at 7 am, I go through the ropes, etc that need to be gotten through when interns are “inducted”. First day on call, I am called down to Casualty to see a 15 year old girl from an All-Malay residential college nearby. She is in pain and her skirt is soaked with blood. It is now 7.30pm, so school would have finished hours earlier. She has this embarased look all over her face. Together with my female chaperone, we establish that she had tried to please herself “down there” (her words, not mine) with a glass test tube. In the midst of all that, the tube broke and cut into her. We nearly lost her.



Another incident was hilarious. I'd been on duty all night at Casualty and it was fairly busy. Six in the morning, we change shift. I walk to my quarters and feel the need to relieve myself, of the “big” kind, if you get my meaning.

So I sit, and strain, and strain. Suddenly,crack!! The thing breaks and cuts deep into my butt. Ow!!! Shit splatters all over the floor. I quickly get a towel and stop the bleeding. I limp, with the towel and only a T-shirt on back to Casualty. Everbody there is falling over laughing. And it went on and on and on, for forever. My face, had I been a bit fairer, would have been plum red. Ten stitches was the result and it hurt for almost a month and I shuddered every time I "went" during that period..





Nine months later I head back to KL to work with Tikki Pang, my lifetime role model. By the way, he grew up in Canberra. He was an extremely smart man who taught me microbiology, more specifically, immunology, in medical school. Those days, our medical students considered “microbiology” and “immunolgy” one and the same. How wrong they were.
His first tutorial went like this. He comes in with his tennis gear and pulls up a chair, the wrong way round. “Any questions?” he asks. No one budged- everyone was afraid of him. So he gets up and leaves. Not another word. We students look at each other in shock.

I sort of got the picute, so: Next tutorial, my hand went up straight away. “Yes?”, he asks. “What is the meaning of life?” Everyone laughs. We end up having a one on one conversation on Schopenhauer, Bach, tennis, Fred Hoyle and you name it. Everone else was silent. This went on for the next 5 or 6 tutorials. When someone else took over his place, I skipped microbiology tutorials. I knew then that my life was meant to be in research.
Prof (as I still call him) met me at the E& O Hotel in Penang. I told him I wanted to come do research with him. He quipped “WHY????” But he managed to get me a scholarship and off I went, back to KL, to work with this so-called genius in reseach in Malaysia. I had fun in his laboratory, where I (literally) stayed. I slept on the freezers at night, with a T-shirt rolled up to fashion a makeshift pillow. That did me, it was fine. Made friends with the security guards, who came into the labs to play donkey-kong or whatever video games were “in” then. I'd do my washing in the side room and hang it up to dry on the balcony. One day I got into trouble because my underwear blew off and landed smack bang on the Dean's window. Ooops.

At lunch, I'd swim 40 laps of the swimming pool daily and perhaps more at night if I has the energy. It was literally, my home (“Home is where the heart belongs”). Twice a week, I gave my Boss lessons on how to play badminton properly. He was, in hindsight, insofar as badminton is concerned, quite a slow learner, with his so-called tennis background-bias.

We used to buy him chocolates for his birthday, the 30th day of October {1904} (Halloween for the Americans). But he nonchalantly put them in his drawer, his typical professional self. One night we at the lab got hungry. We ate it all. Not my fault- the troops were hungry and needed to be fed and the simplest option was...One of my famous questions I used to ask him was “Does a bacterium have a mind?”. He barked “Ask me when I am sixty!!”- I am still waiting for the answer – only one or maybe 2 years to go now...

Whilst doing my Masters with Tikki, I worked as a locum GP in a remote town called Dengkil. One patient I remember fondly was the local Imam, who was well into his 60s. He'd heard of Viagra, this long blue pill that had then been just released. Of course, such a remote clinic had no such drug. I told him to wait. So I go out of the consult room, to the in-house pharmacy and grab a handful of Vitamin C pills and shove them in an envelope. Later I go back to him and explain “This is better than Viagra- I got this from the local university” (everyone in the town of 50 knew I worked at the uni). After that shift I went to Europe to visit my then girlfriend and stayed for close to 5 months with her. About 8 months later, this same Imam comes in with his wife, now heavily pregnant, for a follow up visit. He winks at me when he walks in with his wife. After the consult, he sends his wife out and pleads with me “Could I have some more???”. Whoever said that the placebo effect didn't work? Hey, you Cochrane guys.....

In the year 2000, Tikki headed for the glory of WHO in Genf. I came to Sydney. No, no, not for the Olympics, but to start a PhD in Immunology with Guna Karupiah and his wife Geeta, who also grew up in Canberra. They introduced me to the Aussie way of life and literally took care of me like another son. I spent most weekends at their place and most of my cutlery at home now is still theirs. I loved research. The 2Gs, as we called them, were very good teachers and complemented each other. I learned heaps. In 2001 we moved from Sydney University to the ANU.

The scene now is Lewwellyn Hall, ANU. It is graduation day. Circumstances are different from my graduation from medical school. Very. This time, in the audience are my two mates, Mick and Warren, both ex-Sydney University from the late 1960s. This fine graduation day, Mick has his shoes on, a rarity - probably borrowed. They did and still do warn me about how low temperatures can get in Canberra. As I type this it is zero degrees Celsius outside.

So, I graduated. Things changed again, overnight. Suddenly I was a junior researcher expected to perform, i.e. publish. Anyone in research would fully understand my predicament. My career in research slowly but surely went from bad to worse, to psychologically-unbearable.

In 2010, I went to Europe for a conference and visited a few labs. I gave some talks and met lots of collaborators. I had a lot of time to think during the journey, but I was still very distressed by work. My partner Melissa almost left me as I drank and drank, in a vain attempt to ease the tension at work. So, I quit. Didn't complain. Didn't fight back or anything like that. Just walked out.

Like magic, I changed.Literally overnight. The stress was gone. So was my research career, but I simply didn't give a rats. I had agreed earlier with John to help him out for the month of June and the timing was perfect. His wife Rosemary was going to Europe and he needed someone to stand in for that period. John was and still is a super-Boss.

One Friday, my friend Torsten (TJ) takes me for a drive. He says, "It's a surprise, don't you worry". The next thing I know, I meet Owen Saddler and Marilyn Chalkley. They are blown away by my qualifications and wonder why I want to work at Dream Cuisine. I say simply that I am out of work and need the cash. That was my first day. I had heard of macarons but did not have a clue on how to make them. I learned fairly quickly, as there were only the 3 of us. I learned to pipe, to make crème brulee, to make different kinds of pastry, etc etc. They were fun tasks. Marilyn was very experienced had just been made redundant by CSIRO and Owen did not finish his Engineering degree and could not find a job. I really, to this day, don't understand why. Owen is one of the smartest people I've ever met. IT was Owen that in a way, got me this interview with the Canberra Times. This was mid 2010. I soon delivered macarons to wholesale customers. I sold our products at the local farmers market. I met more and more people, almost all of them nice people. Our team expanded, first with Lowie the chef, then Dan the Face, then Samara his wife. No, sorry, I stand corrected. Samara came first, then Danface. Later Leon, Rachel, Cristal,Callum, Zuzanna and Angelique came on board. One big happy family, so much fun.

Two years after joining.Vijay Panchanathan is now the business manager of the patisserie called Dream Cuisine. He is madder than a cut-snake. He has attempted to be a medical doctor (again) but Big Brother (The Australian Medical Council) won't let him take the exams. So he tells them to kindly take their business where the sun don't shine. He has an Aussie wife from Young (who he met at Moose) and absolutely adores Canberra (and her too). He swares like a trooper, especially after he's had a few cold ones (Thanks, Canberra). He thinks he is mates with and admires (from afar), a roo called Skip, who visits his backyard when the sun goes down. He loves Slim Dusty, Paul Kelly, Jane Rutter, Philip Glass, 666 ABC Canberra, Willow and Baylow, Macca, Ross Solly, Genevieve Jacobs, Louise Maher, Richard Fiedler, Margaret Throsby, Adam (Shirldog) Shirley, not to mention Butcher Lindbeck and The 2 Tims: Tim the Yowieman and Tim Gavel. He is Raiders and Brumbies-mad; except when Crusaders play Brumbies. Don't even bring up Skywhale- he's helped roll it up. Canberra is his home and he ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon.

He's just got back from a business networking meeting, where he did not get to tell his full story. Two or three weeks ago, together with his mate Pravin, he started a bioscience consulting company. Last week, they created a subsidiary, Ace Editors, to take care of the editing aspect of the company.

If he got flattened by a semi-trailer tomorrow, never the matter. He has never been happier. A lifetime supply of nice people and there are just so many in Canberra. Thank you Canberra. So, folks, that's my story. Thank you.

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